Cell-based meats, or clean meats, can alleviate pressures on the environment, end animal suffering, and produce sustainable protein for the growing world population. Yet, we are still far away from making cell-based meats a reality due to technological challenges. New Age Meats is tackling these challenges with automation and data to accelerate product development and bring pork sausages to market sooner. We chatted with Brian Spears, CEO of New Age Meats.
How did you become interested in the cell-based meat field?
I left my last company because — although it was extremely interesting, with great customers and cool technology — it wasn’t having a tremendous social impact. I’ve always believed in having a social impact mission. During my time at that company, I started other nonprofits, but they typically got the dregs of my time and energy. So, my conviction has been that your company should be a vehicle for how you see the world. I sold my ownership of that company, I’m still on great terms with my former co-founder, but I needed a technology or industry that was benefiting from this three-way collision of what I’m really good at, what I really care about, and what the world needs. I looked at industries that were making transformations to make the world a better place, and the more I learned about cell-based meat, the more it excited me.
Cell-based meat simultaneously solves big problems around the environment, human health, animal welfare, and food security. It’s also just really cool. It’s what we’re eating for the next century, what we’re eating in space stations, and on Mars. The more I researched it, the more I just thought it was amazing. I became involved with the Good Food Institute (GFI) and New Harvest in early 2017 and learned a lot about the space. GFI has an entrepreneur forum to meet potential co-founders. I started to look for co-founders, and that’s how I met Andra.
What are you building, what’s exciting about it, what’s your company focused on, and what’s special about it?
We make meat from animal cells instead of animal slaughter. We work on pork, which we chose because of the massive amount of research that’s been done on pork cell lines. There’s no animal that we consume in mass that has had more research done on it than pork.
Our big differentiator benefits from our team’s background: automation and data science. I have 12 years of industry experience automating deep research labs like NASA, US national labs, the Canadian Research Council, and the University of Texas. In those cases we put in hardware acquisition points to acquire more data and then assemble the data to make data-based decisions. Essentially that’s how you make research faster, and how you uncover connections that you didn’t know existed previously. So that’s on the deep research side. On the product side — with customers like Cisco, 3M, and GE — we ask, how do you then take that research and make products better and faster? How do you accelerate the pipeline from R&D to production?
We actually started our life as a company together in November — as a horizontal company. We looked at the industry and evaluated where we could provide value. We talked to probably 150 people in existing cell-based meat companies, as well as academic researchers and nonprofit advocates. We found that people liked our vision of how to engineer biology using data science and automation, but as an incremental improvement, they didn’t see that it was pivotal to their success.
Andra’s degree from the University of Oxford is in interdisciplinary biosciences, so she took a lot of courses in engineering, statistics, math, and hardware acquisition in order to understand all the tools that she could use as a biologist to do better research.
Despite our backgrounds, when we approached companies, they just didn’t catch our vision. We were also looking at all the other companies that were providing technology and tools for human tissue engineering — like cell lines, the scaffolding, and the bioreactors. We were evaluating their capacity to re-engineer their technology to come into our market, because if they were well poised to do that, then that’s probably not a place we would provide unique value. We took a full view of the R&D to product pipeline. With this understanding and with our unique differentiators, we saw that we worked best as a vertically integrated company. So in April, we decided to deliver pork to people using our technology.
If you succeed, how do you think you will change the food industry landscape?
We can make tastier, healthier, and more sustainable meat. The way that meat is made now is kind of a race to the bottom. There is an appetite for really cheap meat. You have industrial animal agriculture that is creating more and more negative externalities for the world: climate change, deforestation, species lost, human health concerns like antibiotic-resistant infections, concentrated animal feedlots or feed sheds, which means poor animal welfare. We can change all that.
There’s only so much you can engineer an animal to give you different tastes, textures and food experiences. With cell-based meat, we control the entire environment in which we grow our cells. This means we can start with the perception of how humans enjoy meat, and then craft our meat to deliver new, interesting, better experiences. We can also take away a lot of the negative human health aspects I mentioned before. This world of cell-based meat is obviously much better for animals. They will be able to live their own natural lives.
What are the lessons learned coming from your old company to New Age Meats as CEO?
My last company was a bootstrapped company, and we took no outside investment. So from the very beginning, we had customers and we grew in accordance with their demands. If we had a big customer pulling us in a certain direction, it made sense for us as a business to go in that direction. We were constantly changing in order to adapt to our big customers, because we were so driven by these short-term returns on investment. This meant that sometimes we traded a clear vision for the future of our company with short term gains. And then when those customers suddenly canceled a contract because they had cutbacks, we were stuck with a product so tailored to their use case that we couldn’t use it with other customers without extensive rework.
I have a friend outside of Silicon Valley, in Chicago. We were recently chatting and he started to poke fun at Silicon Valley companies, saying that we don’t actually care about money or return on investment. We just care about these crazy ideas.
I’ve learned so much in the past two years moving into investor backed startups. In Silicon Valley, investors want me to come in and say, “Hey, the world currently looks a certain way, but it doesn’t have to. I see the way the world can be, and I see a pathway for my company to come in and be the catalyst to make it that way. So, after the existing ecosystem is disrupted, we’ll be the one standing there in the new future.” They want to give me the money so that I can follow that vision and not be pulled in different directions, and in so doing, make a product that changes the world.
In the short term, what are the important milestones and achievements you’re looking to hit as a company?
We’re raising 3 million dollars for a seed round. We have five scientific milestones that we’re going to hit, and we have seven business and product milestones. The science milestones include making progress on the cell lines and the infrastructure with the bioreactors. Then on the business/product side, we ask, What do our customers want? What is it that we’re delivering to them? And how do we make tastes and experiences that speak to them?
That leads to product definition. What is in the product that we’re going to make? When we make our bioreactors or cultivators, what will the production facility look like? And then, what is the experience the consumers are going to be having? We’ll design all of that, so that when we go to Series A, will be able to execute on that plan.
We are leading a cultural shift. People have been increasingly eating animals from factory farms. We’re going to change that. We’re going to shift consumption to meat that’s tastier, healthier, and more sustainable. To do that, we’re having that conversation with the public early and often.